Seeing the Highlights of Burma
Rangoon, November 1999
I'm standing barefoot in the temple complex of Shwedagon, Burma's most mesmerizing sight. And I'm going through film at a great rate, because -- in a lifetime of exotic travel -- I've never seen anything like this. All around me are astonishing pagodas in different shapes -- some edged in gold, some covered in glittering mirror mosaic -- and at the center, a magnificent stupa covered in gold and tipped with diamonds.
After all, Burma (officially called Myanmar) has been at the top of our travel wish lists for years -- and we're determined to soak it all in. Over the next sixteen days we'll see most of the highlights of the country -- starting in the capital, Rangoon (now called Yangon), an hour's flight from Bangkok, and continuing on to Pagan (Bagan), a boat trip along the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Pindaya and Golden Rock.
Travel in Burma is easy and hassle-free --as long as you use the services of a good tour operator. We used Abercrombie & Kent, which provided a guide, car and driver for the two of us throughout the trip. Such an arrangement, called an "FIT" by travel agents, is a common way to travel in Burma
(and many other places in Asia) and is offered by most tour operators; it allows a lot of flexibility, lets you stop wherever you want, and can be nearly as well-priced as a group tour. For the independent traveler, it's a way to have your cake and eat it too. There's also good budget travel in Burma, as well as in-between choices.
On our second morning, we discover what will turn out to be our other favorite spot in Rangoon -- the huge Scott Market (Bogyoke Aung San Market). Immediately, we're shopping madly: Burmese handicrafts are unique and the prices are all bargains. Most fascinating are the mysterious items at the stalls where the Burmese are shopping: my favorite is the tiny booth glittering with green foil headdresses, which -- it turns out -- are used as temple offerings.
Then it's time to fly to Pagan -- a little-known archaeological gem that dates from around the turn of the last millennium (850 - 1300). We're astounded by what we see here: over two thousand pagodas crowd an arid plain of only 42 square kilometers. We spend the day exploring the temples, barefoot over the rough stones -- shoes must be removed in all Burmese temples, even those without floors! We're in an air-conditioned car, but lots of tourists are using the ubiquitous horse-and-buggies and some are on bikes. Near sunset, our guide takes us to one of the sunset temples. I gingerly climb the steep narrow steps to the top, along with hordes of tourists; my reward is a vista of ancient temples turning rosy in the sunset.
The next day we board the Road to Mandalay, Orient-Express' sleek river cruiser. Soon we're sailing slowly up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, relaxing on deck and watching life along the river.
After seeing the wonderful main sights of Mandalay (carved teak monastery, dazzling main temple, view from Mandalay Hill), we ask to go to the food market to get a glimpse of real life. Here we're the only tourists. We drink fresh coconut milk and stop our guide at every pile of vegetables and fruit, quizzing her on what everything is.
The next day we're on the move again, flying to Heho Airport, a strange place where tour guides aren't allowed to meet their travelers. We struggle out of the terminal building, lugging the loot we've acquired in Pagan (lacquerware) and Mandalay (more sequined pillows), and find our car, driver and guide. We go immediately to the five-day market in Heho, where men in turbans and indigo skirts haggle for buffalo. Over the next three days, we're lucky enough to catch four of the five-day markets -- so-called because they're held every five days rather than once a week.
And then we're off over the mountains to Inle Lake, where people live in stilt houses and cultivate floating gardens. Soon we're whizzing across the lake's surface in a long-tail boat (similar to the ones in Bangkok), and once again, madly snapping pictures. In the golden sunset light, one of Inle's famous leg-rowers is gliding by with balletic grace, one leg wrapped around his oar, leaving both hands free to pull in his fishing net.
After a whole day touring the lake -- the highlight, a monastery where the abbot has taught his cats to jump through hoops -- we're on the road again. It's a long trip back over the mountains to Pindaya, a mammoth cave filled with Buddha images. But the journey is sensational: we happen upon two festival processions, and jump out of the car to follow each one. At the end of the day, we stop by the side of the road to watch farmers drive their bullock carts home in the setting sun, while the young kids ride the water buffalo.
The next day we're back in Rangoon, doing our laundry in Trader Hotel's guest laundromat (why doesn't every hotel have one of these?) and visiting Shwedagon one last time.
After seeing Julie off, I stay a few more days to visit Golden Rock, a gilded boulder that balances mysteriously on the edge of a cliff -- balancing on a hair of the Buddha, assert the Burmese, who flock there on pilgrimage.
The scene on the mountain top is worth the rough trip: in the clear high air, crowds of the faithful light candles and incense, ring gongs, and press thin squares of gold onto the rock, which glows with the intensity of real gold. Barefoot in a Burmese holy place one last time, I wander the broad marble plaza and drink in the scene as deeply as I can. It's the perfect place to end my Burma adventure.
Gena Reisner’s trip took place in 1999, and this article was published with the launch of GoNomad in 2000.
Practical information for visting Burma
Burma is in Southeast Asia, bordered by Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh.
Fly to Bangkok and connect to a flight into Rangoon (Yangon). If you're using a tour operator, ask about their contract rates for your Bangkok flight; I got a better price through Abercrombie & Kent than I could find on the internet, with more flexible terms.
If you've booked a tour, all transport will be provided for you -- including the use of the car and driver for the evening if you're going out to dinner. If you're on your own, there are taxis in Rangoon and Mandalay, and horse and buggies in Pagan. Local minibuses offer a rough ride, with excess passengers hanging off the back. It's possible to travel by train, but more comfortable to travel by air.
Rangoon: temple complex of Shwedagon; Scott's Market; reclining Buddha.
Pagan: 2000 ancient pagodas; skip the disappointing trip to Mount Popa.
Mandalay: carved teak monastery; the "world's largest book"; a long teak foot-bridge crowded with local life; main temple; main market.
Inle Lake area: Inle Lake; Pindaya Cave (containing thousands of Buddha images); local 5-day markets frequented by tribal people in distinctive dress; trekking out of Pindaya.
Golden Rock (Mt. Kyaikityo) trip: Bago (Burma's largest reclining Buddha); Golden Rock.
LODGINGS AND EATS
Road to Mandalay Cruise
I found that booking an FIT allowed me to travel independently and stop wherever I wanted, without having to spend time on the hassle of making arrangements. Following are some good tour operators offering Burma trips:
-Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) (abercrombiekent.com). We booked our trip with A&K and they did a superb job.
WHEN TO TRAVEL
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